Caterina Sforza Historical Profile

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CATERINA SFORZA Historical Profile
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Name: Caterina Sforza Riario
Born: 1463
Home town: Milan
Died: 28 May 1509
Position: Lady of Imola and Countess of Forlì
House of: Sforza
Nickname: The Virago, Il Tigre di Forlì "who had frightened all of Romagna." She was known as the "Tiger of Forlì" for her earlier victories over her enemies, and ruthless treatment of her enemies. She was called a "Daughter of Perdition" by Pope Alexander VI, who falsely alleged that she had attempted to poison him.
Personality type: Machiavellian, strikingly beautiful, athletic, intelligent, bold, crafty, intriguing, adventurous, likes younger men, strong, brave, ruthless, determined.
Hobbies: Hunting, riding, gardening; concocting homemade potions, healing salves, and cosmetics, later published as "Gli Experimenti"
Strength(s): Ally to the powerful Ludovico "il Moro" Sforza, initially loved by her people, fierce defender and protector of her family's rights, politically astute.
Weakness(es): Scathing temper, cruel to her enemies, cold, easily influenced when blinded by love (Giacomo Feo).
Quirks: Her hair was completely white when she was released from her year-long captivity in the dungeons of Castel Sant'Angelo. {needs source}

"If I were to write the story of my life, I would shock the world."

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Caterina Sforza (born 1463 - died 28 May 1509) was the illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan (reigned 1466 - 1476) and his mistress Lucrezia Landriani. Caterina was brought to live in the Sforza Castle shortly after he married Bona of Savoy, and was raised in the household of the ducal family. In 1473 she was betrothed to Girolamo Riario, "nephew" of Pope Sixtus IV (Francesco della Rovere). At the time the Riario and della Rovere were among the most powerful families in Rome, their union was part of an alliance that created a tie between Rome and Milan which was to last two decades. Pope Sixtus IV gave the hereditary fiefs of Imola and Forlì to Girolamo and Caterina upon their marriage in 1477. They lived at the Vatican for a time - until the death of Sixtus - where Caterina enjoyed the role of an accomplished and beloved princess.

After the death of the pope, Rome was in an uproar (as usual immediately after the death of a pope), and it fell to her to command the fortress against robbers and mercenaries who sought to pillage the palace. Seven months pregnant, sword at her belt, on horseback, she rode to and fro rousing men to action in defense of the castle. She held the fortress until terms of separation and payment of money owed was settled in Riario's favour before the conclave could elect and new pope. The new pope, Innocent VIII allowed the Riarios to go to Forlì and left them alone to rule their fiefs.

page logoAs Lady of Imola and Countess of Forlì she ruled with her husband as typical Renaissance despots. After the assassination of her husband in 1488 by his own subjects, she and her children were taken hostage, but manoeuvred back into power using skillful diplomatic strategies and calculated risks to match any medieval general. Overall, at least at first, she ruled with a firm hand and was loved by her soldiers and supported by her people. She improved the cities of Imola and Forlì, patronized local artists, and maintained a small army. She enjoyed all of the typical princely activities such as hunting, falconry, and entertaining. She was an intelligent lady but did not profess a love for the classics or other scholarly works. She surrounded herself with luxury and magnificence: in true ladylike fashion, took great care of her complexion and figure, and loved her fashionable jewels and gowns. Later she took for a lover, then married, a young handsome courtier named Giacomo Feo. Over the years, his influence over Caterina was seen as negative and in his overbearing arrogance he made powerful enemies of members of her son's faction. He was ambushed and murdered before her eyes at the palace gates. She took vengeance upon his murderers and threw the conspirators (and reportedly their wives and children) into a spiked well to their death. In one chronicle (Cobelli), the list of those she had killed amounted to over 20 individuals. Several of them were sons of the conspirators. The killing of enemy sons was used to prevent their later attempts at vengeance upon their maturity.

Caterina Sforza was widely celebrated for her diplomatic astuteness, strength and bravery, and the valiant yet futile defense of her cities against the Borgias in 1500. She also was the mother of Italy's last - and some say greatest condottiere - Giovanni dalle Bande Nere (de Medici). The "Legend of Ravaldino" (read on below) was probably an exaggeration based on real events.

page logoThe Legend of the Fort - 1488

Caterina Sforza taken prisoner (Dario Gobbi,1914)Fortress of Ravaldino, Forlì. Count Girolamo Riario was assassinated by his enemies; two of which (Ordelaffi, Orsi) were his close advisers from among the nobility. Upon their storming of the castle, Caterina immediately sent a messenger to Milan with a plea for military retaliation from her uncle Ludovico, de facto duke of Milan. Her and the children were taken prisoner and placed under guard. Over the course of a few days the following played out: She was ordered to demand the keys of the fortress of Ravaldino from her castellan, he refused (as was necessary), so she was then required to leave her children as hostages while she spoke with the castellan in private in the keep for three hours to persuade him to give up the rocca. She was reluctantly let go. The moment she reached safety behind the drawbridge she shouted profanity at them and gave them the four-figs (equivalent to flipping the bird). Her stand was simple: Milanese troops were on their way under the Count of Caiazzo, Galeazzo Sanseverino. The conspirators must release the hostages and be gone or suffer bitter reprisals. The captors refused, hesitated, cursed her trickery. They threatened to murder her children before her very eyes. Legend states that she replied by lifting her skirts and pointing to her reproductive parts and then shouted "I have the mould to make more! Children are more easily wrought than a realm." This is called the "Legend of the Fort." There are several versions of this legend. The version most often repeated is the one above, written by Machiavelli several years later. It is the most well-known version of the legend summed up here by a 19th century author:

"She persuaded them to let her enter the rocca to induce those who commanded to give themselves up. They consented, thinking they had nothing to fear from her, and retained her children as hostages. But once entered, she fired upon the besiegers. These threatened to kill her children; she replied that she had one still at Imola, one on the point of birth, and she added, with an indecent gesture, the means of producing others. thus she intimidated her enemies, and remained mistress or recovered her position, and on April 29, Ottaviano, her son and Riario's was proclaimed lord of Forli and Imola".
- The History of Florence Under the Domination of the Medici, by François Tommy Perrens (paraphrasing Cobelli, Machiavelli, and Infessura).

List of contemporary sources that contain a description of the events:

Leone Cobelli, Cronache Forlivesi, pg 322
Stefano Infessura, Diarium urbis Romae (Diario della Città di Roma) vol. iii part ii, pg 1220
Niccolo Machiavelli, Discorsi, pg 262

Most scholars and biographers refer to this legend as fact. There is one version of the events, by Forli chronicler Leone Cobelli, who was actually present at the castle during the events, and he described them in his Cronache Forlivesi. Yet he makes no mention of the famous skirt-lifting scene where Caterina refused to surrender the rocca even if her enemies kill her children. We may glean from his silence either (1) the skirt-lifting was a fabrication or exaggeration of an obscene gesture, or (2) he was politically bound to stay quiet on this particular subject. Caterina's biographer Desiderio Pasolini (who appears to have an ardently pro-Caterina slant), maintains that Cobelli's chronicle actually stated that she was asleep in the fortress keep during the parlay between her castellan and the captors. It is quite likely that she was nonchalant about the whole thing, daring to take a nap after dinner, if only to rub it in that she was in full control of the situation. Her uncle (possibly the most powerful man with troops in Italy at the moment) was on his way to rout the conspirators and have them punished. The killing of his niece's children would have been an unthinkable atrocity and major retaliation (and possibly a war between Milan and the papacy) would have resulted.

After the assassination of her husband, she married her lover, courtier Giacomo Feo, in secret about 1490. Feo was murdered 27 August, 1495 by supporters of her sixteen year-old son Ottaviano's faction who resented Feo's influence over the Caterina's regency government. The alliance between Florence and Caterina aimed to buffer Florence from Venice, who was trying to purchase Faenza from the Manfredi. Through his council and close administration of their affairs, her and Florentine diplomat Giovanni de Medici became lovers. Caterina married her third and final husband Giovanni de Medici "iI Popolano" in secret in September 1497.

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As Regent for her son Ottaviano, she maintained control of her cities Imola and Forlì despite attempts to overthrow the Riario by feuding noble families such as the Orsi and Ordelaffi.

She was an opponent of the Borgias during Cesare's conquest of the papal cities in the Romagna. Seeking to isolate Caterina from her allies, the Borgias falsely accused her of attempting to poison the pope by sending letters (supposedly written by the populace) laced with germs from victims of the plague.

In 1500 Cesare captured Imola and Forli, and laid siege to Caterina's fortress of Ravaldino. The countess refused to give in,
tried to capture Cesare himself by inviting him to pass over the drawbridge at Forlì and parlay with her. Her order to raise the bridge when he was on it was undertaken too soon, and he was able to jump to safety. She was taken prisoner and held captive. She appeared at banquets in Rome 'in an foul temper and with fierce spirit.' Out of Cesare's many conquests in the Romagna, she gave him his first resistance, albeit futile, against his modern French artillery. She was captured and held prisoner for over a year in the dungeons of the Castel Sant'Angelo. After signing away her rights to her fiefs, she was released and went to live in state at the Medici villa di Castello near Florence.

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FROM BELLO DA CASTROCARO TO PUCCIO PUCCI: "[Bello] was sent by Florentine diplomat Puccio Pucci to question the Countess as to the passage of some Milanese troops, and was admitted into her presence. Her youthful lover [Giacomo Feo], in a scarlet satin coat with a short cloak of cloth-of-gold negligently thrown across his shoulders, was seated on a window sill. Near him sat [Caterina] on a "cathedra," or heavy wooden chair, wearing a loose gown of white brocade with a black scarf." (Pasolini, p.188) Bello wrote:

"In beauty, they were like two suns."

"Madonna would see her subjects, her children and her chattels buried, and they will give their souls to the devil and the State to the Turk, sooner than abandon eachother."


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  • "If I were to write the story of my life, I would shock the world."
  • "More is always said than the real truth."
  • "If, after having refused every condition and scorned every weakness unworthy of the name of Sforza, I am crushed by you, the world shall learn that I and those whom, with me, these walls enclose, take comfort in the thought that they who die at their posts are unforgotten and that often their cause survives them and triumphs."
  • "You cannot imagine the life I lead with my husband. I has often caused me to envy those who die."
  • --

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  • Her youngest son by her third marriage (to Giovanni de Medici) was a famous condottiero, Giovanni dalle Bande Nere. His descendants can be found in many noble families and princely dynasties to this very day, through the line of his son Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.
  • Caterina Sforza commanded a fortress on horseback with a drawn sword - while 7 months pregnant; the Castel Sant'Angelo after the death of Sixtus IV. She also parlayed with a renegade castellan who wouldn't give her keys to the fortress of Ravaldino - while 8 months pregnant; she rode 7 miles back to her palace and gave birth the next day.
  • She wrote a book of 457 medicinal and household recipes, poisons, cosmetics, and experiments called, 'Gli Experimenti.
  • descendants include Marie de Medici, King Charles II of England, and Diana, Princess of Wales
  • She was compared by her contemporaries as a modern Queen Zenobia, brought to Rome in a triumphal display, "in golden chains" - metaphorically speaking - under a different Cesare.

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Caterina Sforza Historical Profile - THE  BORGIAS   wiki

A detail of the three graces from Boticelli's Primavera. The woman on the far right is thought by Maike Vogt-Luerssen ( to be Caterina. At the time this was painted, c. 1485, her husband Girolamo Riario was a much hated enemy of the ruling branch of the Medici. The commissioner of this piece was Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent from the cadet branch, who later changed their name to Popolani after the Medici expulsion of 1494.

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